Friday, 15 February 2013

Measuring child poverty - what we said to Government

The government has been consulting on ways to measure child poverty (see an earlier blog), the consultation closed today. These are the points that Children North East made in our response to the consultation:

The proposals confuse measures of poverty; the characteristics of some children who may live in poverty; the circumstances in which some children who may be poor, live; and widely held but erroneous beliefs about the reasons why some children are poor. Poverty is very simple to define, it is not having enough income to meet basic needs and take part in the activities that most people believe to be normal in our society.

Children North East has worked with poor and disadvantaged children, young people and their parents in our region for over 120 years. In our view the causes of poverty are structural and the solution is sufficient, sustainable properly paid jobs. However for individual children and young people a common route out of poverty is access to opportunities that open up new possibilities for them. Often, but not exclusively these opportunities come through school.

Income and Material Deprivation

There are four income measures in the Child Poverty Act 2010, all four should be retained. One is 60% of median income which is used by most developed countries. Academics agree it is a bit rough and ready but it measures progress over time and enables comparison between countries.

Two other measures already exist which would complement the four in the Child Poverty Act 2010, these are:

  1. The DWP ‘Households Below Average Income’ (HBAI) survey of what people in low income households can actually afford. And
  2. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation ‘Minimum Income Standard’ which is based on surveys of what the public think is an acceptable minimum standard of living.
Human beings are social animals; we instinctively compare ourselves to others because we need to know where we stand in the ‘pecking order’. We feel valued if we are at the top and less valued if we are at the bottom. Being stuck at the bottom can make us feel hopeless. In our present ‘consumer society’ we judge one another by what a person owns which of course depends on income – what they can afford to buy. Therefore relative income is fundamental to social standing and wellbeing in the UK today. If what we collectively value were to radically change, for example if service to others were to become generally accepted as the most important thing in our society; then both relative and absolute income would become much less important.


The proposals fail to recognise that well over 66% of poor children live in families where at least one parent works. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently published research conducted by Teesside University in Glasgow and Middlesbrough which found very little evidence of the so-called ‘culture of worklessness’. People want to work if they can, however too many jobs are short-term; when the job ends people go back to claiming benefits. The reality is people go through a cycle of ‘low pay’ followed by ‘no pay’.

‘Worklessness’ has acquired the connotation of people refusing work. We prefer the terms ‘jobless’ or ‘unemployed’ that connote the reality which is that there are too few well paid jobs. This is the real cause of poverty.

If ‘Worklessness’ is about paid work it should be measured by the number of jobs that pay the national Minimum Wage. The proposals do not recognise the importance of unpaid labour – raising children, caring for sick or elderly relatives, cleaning the home and cooking. The private lives of most adults is filled with responsibilities to family and extended family, indeed most people would say these are the most meaningful things in their lives. There are times when our responsibilities to look after others are more important than paid work – for example when a child is sick. Despite the increasing marketisation of child care and social care in fact the State relies on families to look after their own. In our view measures of ‘work’ should include unpaid work in the home with family members as well as paid employment.

Unmanageable Debt

People should not need to fall into unmanageable debt if they have sufficient income to cover their needs. The Living Wage campaign calculates that outside London people need to earn £7.45 an hour in full-time employment to have an acceptable minimum standard of living. The Living Wage is calculated using the Joseph Rowntree Foundation ‘Minimum Income Standard’ (see question 2a above) which is based on surveys of what the public think is an acceptable minimum standard of living.

Debt becomes unmanageable because loan companies charge exorbitant interest rates. The government should:

  • measure wages and salaries
  • encourage employers to pay the Living Wage
  • legislate to prevent loan companies charging exorbitant interest rates
  • encourage people to use Credit Unions instead of loan companies

Poor Housing

Most poor children live in rented homes, responsibility for maintenance and repair rests with the landlord, not the family. National Minimum Housing Standards exist, they should be publicised and enforced. The government should measure numbers of rented properties that meet Minimum Housing Standards and the number of enforcements against landlords whose property does not meet the minimum standards.

During the summer of 2011 Children North East invited over 500 children and young people living in disadvantaged communities across the north east to use disposable cameras we supplied them to take photographs of ‘what poverty looks like where they live’. The youngest child was 3 and the oldest 18 years old, they took over 11,000 images. We talked to them about the pictures they took. By far the strongest themes to emerge were poor housing and run-down neighbourhoods that made the children and young people feel ashamed. This is the impact of poor housing and run-down neighbourhoods on the children living in them.

Parental (Employability) Skills

Last year the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published research by Newcastle University which found that parents of children living in poverty have the same aspirations as other families for their children. The experience of Children North East is that 99% of parents want their children to do well in their lives, ideally to do better than they have. As noted above a common route out of poverty for individual children and young people is access to opportunities that open up new possibilities for them. Often, but not exclusively these opportunities come through school. Parents can lack knowledge, networks or contacts of how to help their children make the best of possibilities that are available to them. Inspirational teachers, youth workers, community leaders etc. can often provide the knowledge, networks or contacts that parents do not have.

Adults need the skills necessary to be employed in the jobs that are available locally. There should be enough, properly paid, long term jobs for all. The proposals talk about employability skills. One of the purposes of Children’s Centres was to support parents and encourage them to improve their skills and readiness for work. The government has allowed local authorities to choose whether they continue to support Children’s Centres. Government should reinstate the importance of Children’s Centres and fund them sufficiently to do the task.

Access to quality education

Schools are not just about academic achievement. For poor children they also provide access to possibilities in sports, enterprise, arts, performance, creativity, practical skills, community service etc. that are not available to them anywhere else. However in our work with poor children and young people Children North East has found that many schools unwittingly further disadvantage poor children and young people. Children North East is piloting assessment tools for schools to test how well they engage students from disadvantaged backgrounds in all aspects of school life so that they can understand and change their practices.

Excellent schools do not achieve excellent outcomes for all students especially those from poorer backgrounds; even in failing schools some students excel. All schools must address the gap in attainment between students from the best off and worst off backgrounds.

Our 2011 photography project (see question 12 above) took place during the school summer holiday. None of the children or young people went away on holiday, a few went on free day trips organised by the local Children’s Centre or community project, otherwise they spent all their time in the neighbourhood. The children and young people did not use leisure facilities such as swimming pools either because entrance or the cost of public transport to the venue was too expensive. Those children who lived close enough to the coast or countryside to walk there, did take advantage of those places.

Poor children and young people do not have access to opportunities outside school. Schools should provide opportunities for students to engage in sports, creative activities and performance, exposure to culture, business and travel, community service and other activities that widen horizons, nurture ambition and improve life chances. 

Schools should be measured on attainment between students from the best off and worst off backgrounds. They should focus on minimising this ‘attainment gap’. Good governance and leadership is essential at every level in a school – students (for example school councils and other ‘Student Voice’ activities), teachers, subject and year heads, senior team, headteacher and governors. Parents are very often missed out of the chain of accountability yet the education ‘system’ is ultimately accountable to parents as voters. School governing bodies must include significant representation by parents alongside other stakeholders in the local community including business and students as ‘consumers’ of the school offer.

Children North East welcomes the current Ofsted inspection regime which explicitly examines how schools use the Pupil Premium. We would like the inspection regime to go further and examine how inclusive schools are for all children and young people including those from poor families. We want to see school success defined wider than simply academic achievement. Good quality education is about inspiration that widens horizons and opens up possibilities.

Family Stability

In our 2011 photography project we found children and young people regarded good family relationships, friendships and pets to be overwhelmingly important to their wellbeing. They told us no matter how bad everything else was, as long as they had their family, friends and pets they felt they would be ‘all right’. Clearly children and young people want good relationships to continue, equally if family relationships and friendships are bad they want them to change. Family stability is relevant in so far that the existing family relationships are positive for children and young people.

The experience of Children North East is that 99% of mothers and fathers want their children to do well and ideally do better in life they them. This is true whether parents are living together or separated. Time and again research has found that children’s life chances are improved when their parents or other significant adult family members are actively engaged in their upbringing and education. For 15 years Children North East has championed the importance of fathers, grandfathers and other male carers to children’s life chances. We have campaigned for maternity, health and early years services and schools to do more to engage men as much as women.

Children do best in all respects when both their parents or other significant adult family members are actively engaged in their upbringing and education, this includes fathers. However children and young people are adversely affected by family stress especially between the people responsible for their care and upbringing. Parents who are experiencing stress should be encouraged to seek help. If bad relationships between parents are irreconcilable it is better that they separate rather than perpetuate a stressful situation for their children. However it is very important to children that separated parents both continue to be actively engaged in their upbringing and education.

The government has experimented with measures of wellbeing and happiness. Children North East suggests the government explores ways of measuring happiness of all the members of the family including children and young people.

Parental Health

The impact of caring for a parent or other adult relative on a child or young person is not widely understood, neither is the love and commitment of the child to the adult they are caring for. Children North East thinks counting the number of young carers would make them more visible which in turn would enable their needs to be better understood and ultimately ensure they had appropriate support. However successive governments and public services have tried and failed to identify and count the number of young carers.

Whilst it is true that a sick or disabled parent is less likely to be in work and therefore family income is likely to be reduced, it is not the case that all young carers live in poor families. Despite popular opinion there is no correlation between poverty and a variety of family problems including poor parenting, mental health of parents, domestic violence, alcohol or drug dependency, anti-social behaviour, criminality etc. All can occur alone or in various combinations in rich, poor and middle income families.

Children North East provides intensive interventions to families where parents have mental health conditions, or substantial substance misuse that have an adverse impact on parenting. These conditions are not in themselves either causes or symptoms of poverty. However they can be barriers to employment and therefore access to sufficient income. The purpose of our work with these families is to stabilise the circumstances so that parents can focus on the task of raising their children. This can mean preparing parents to re-enter the job market. However more needs to be done with employers to tackle their prejudices about workers who have a mental illness or who have control of their substance misuse. We suggest the government measures the number of people in work who have mental ill health or misuse substances.

In our view measures of ‘labour’ should include unpaid work in the home with family members as well as paid employment. Parents who are disabled or have other health conditions may not be able to engage in paid work but are frequently engaged in unpaid work at home or for the family.

Other suggestions of things to measure

In our research with children and young people they told us that they understood all the messages about healthy eating but their families could not obtain fresh vegetables, fruit and meat locally because the local shops had closed to be replaced by small supermarkets that only sell processed food (for example Heron, Iceland, Farm Foods etc.). Fresh foodstuffs were available at large supermarkets however families could not afford to travel to them very often (by bus or taxi) if they did not own a car.

Children and young people who claim free school meals can rely on one meal a day Monday to Friday during term time. Many schools also run breakfast clubs during term time supported by businesses such as Greggs or Kelloggs. However families struggle to provide meals during the school holidays.

Children North East knows that good diet is very closely linked to having enough income and that poor diet is significantly correlated with a range of health conditions including obesity. This could be included in measures of child poverty however we are unable to recommend how it would be measured.

In our work to highlight the impact of child poverty we have chosen to bring children and young people’s experiences to attention because they voices are seldom heard in the debate. We recommend the government actively seeks and takes account of children and young people’s lived experience of poverty in all policy matters regarding child poverty.

We have made very clear throughout our response that the definition of poverty is insufficient money to have what most people would regard as a satisfactory standard of living and the cause of poverty is not enough, sustainable properly paid jobs. We think the consultation is trying to understand and find ways of measuring the impact of poverty.

Our experience is that living in poverty means having to have low expectations of life. A group of young people who took part in our photography project also worked with Newcastle Live Theatre to make a short drama about Hope – a fictional 12 year old girl living in poverty, they performed the piece at a Parliamentary Reception last June hosted by Sharon Hodgson MP for Washington. It ends with these lines which summarise Hope’s expectations compared to her dreams.

In the future…
I expect little change
I expect nothing
I expect my little sister not to get better
I expect greater stress
I expect to be wiser
I expect for no one to understand
I expect my Mam won’t get a job
I don’t know what to expect
I expect to get kicked out
I expect to have a hard life

In the Future…
I hope for a better neighbourhood
I hope to have a nice garden
I hope for more money
I hope to have a better house
I hope I don’t have to worry so much
I hope to go to University
I hope to become a history teacher
I hope to feel a sense of pride
I hope to win the Lottery
I hope to go on holiday, anywhere
I hope.